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UW-Eau Claire Graduate Accepted for Teach For America Program

RELEASED: July 11, 2005

EAU CLAIRE — Zachary Verriden, Stoughton, has become the first University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire graduate accepted into Teach For America, a national corps of outstanding recent college graduates of all academic majors who commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools and become lifelong leaders in the effort to expand educational opportunity. Teach for America is highly selective. This year, the program received approximately 17,000 applications for 2,000 positions. Of those accepted, 93 percent held leadership positions on their campuses and in their communities, earning average GPAs of 3.5.

Verriden, who graduated in December 2004 with a bachelor of arts degree in political science, plans to attend law school some day. He is currently in Philadelphia for five weeks of rigorous training, along with graduates from schools like Yale and Dartmouth.

"The person who interviewed me has already been accepted into Stanford University Law School," said Verriden. "But she has developed such a passion for this program that she keeps delaying her entrance. After her two-year teaching commitment was over, she joined the TFA staff and has now been part of TFA for five years."

Verriden has found that there is a general misconception about Teach For America. He said many people think the main focus of the program is to provide badly needed teachers for schools in low-income urban and rural areas, and that Teach For America is simply a way for those participating to skip over the process of earning a teaching certificate.

"When I first began talking with people about my desire to join the TFA movement, most people believed it was some sort of federal feeder program. Even my own roommate had that impression," said Verriden. "But when I told him what it is really about, he was impressed. I have found that I need to explain the message that is at the core of TFA in order for people to truly appreciate the underlying movement and selective nature of the program."

While attracting applicants from all academic majors, interests and backgrounds — particularly those with records of outstanding achievement and leadership — and placing them in our nations' underserved schools is definitely an important part of the program, the long-term aim is to create life-long advocates committed to working toward the goal of an excellent education for all children, said Verriden. Teach For America officials hope that once these new teachers experience the reality of educational inequality in this country, they will use their insight to assume leadership roles and affect long-term educational and social reform in careers across all sectors, including education, law, public policy, healthcare and business.

Verriden can already see himself doing that. After his time in Teach For America, he expects to go on to specialize in family law, with a possible focus on advocacy for children, but he knows it is possible he will fall in love with teaching.

"I was told that about 64 percent of the people who come through Teach For America decide to remain in education," said Verriden.

For now though, he is excited about his assignment. He has been hired to teach high school social studies at the LEAP Academy University Charter School, a privately run, publicly funded high school in Camden, N.J.

"LEAP stands for Leadership Education and Partnership," said Verriden. "LEAP Academy serves the same children, facing the same ills, as do the Camden Public Schools, but it tries to take a different approach — to think outside the box — in order to give these underprivileged children an excellent education and encourage them to continue on to college."

Verriden found U.S. Census Bureau statistics on Camden and discovered that the town of almost 80,000 is roughly 55 percent black or African American and 38 percent Latino or Hispanic. Coming from Stoughton and UW-Eau Claire, Verriden realizes he will be teaching in a cultural milieu quite different from the one to which he is accustomed, and he admits to a little nervousness. But he is encouraged by what he had heard from Teach For America veterans.

The program tries to cluster corps members and alumni in the areas they serve, with at least two recruits in each school so they can support and encourage each other. According to Teach For America, corps members also have access to content area and grade level groups facilitated by experienced teachers; one-on-one observations and professional development discussions with Teach For America staff; and opportunities to observe other teachers. The local staff also works with area school districts, schools of education, professional associations and other organizations to connect corps members with the best professional development and teaching resources available.

Verriden believes he was accepted into the program in part because of his diverse experiences during his years at UW-Eau Claire. He spent one summer working as a camp counselor at the YMCA's Camp Manitou in New Auburn, was involved in University Theatre for a full year, and was a pre-education major for a while, assisting at South Middle School and Memorial High School in Eau Claire. He also worked 30 hours per week at TGI Fridays and Applebee's while attending school and traveled as much as he could. Several of Verriden's former professors said they can understand why Verriden was an attractive candidate for Teach for America.

"Zach was an extremely bright undergraduate with a strong sense of civic duty and an adventurous spirit," said Dr. Rodd Freitag, associate professor of political science.

Professor of political science Dr. Peter Myers added that Verriden was "hardworking, thoughtful and open-minded."

"His papers for me were generally among the most ably written and strongly argued papers that I have read in recent years," said Myers.

Sean McAleer, assistant professor of philosophy and religious studies, who was Verriden's adviser for his topical minor and had him in a "Philosophy of Law" course, adds to the list of Verriden's qualities, "loads of commonsense, open-minded, and a good sense of humor."

"Teach For America is lucky to get him," said McAleer.

Verriden said he hopes other UW-Eau Claire graduating seniors will consider applying for Teach For America. He first heard about the program through an e-mail from Golden Key International Honour Society, which recognizes and encourages excellence in all academic disciplines and strives to connect its members with exclusive career and community service opportunities. He stresses that students interested in applying should understand they are competing with the brightest students from some of the country's best schools, and they need to put a significant amount of effort into preparing an application that will impress the recruiters.

"I have been amazed here in Philly to find the drive and ambition of these people unlike anything that I have ever seen," said Verriden. "We are on a schedule from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. and we still stay up working on individual classroom material. People truly believe that one day every child will have access to an excellent education."

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